A three-year-old South African boy born with cerebral palsy is due to undergo stem cell treatment at Duke University in the USA this month.

Cerebral palsy is a blanket term for a variety of neurological conditions that impact movement and muscle control. Traditionally people living with cerebral palsy are treated with occupational and physical therapy, but in the last decade some strides have been made in stem cell treatment for sufferers.

Treating cerebral palsy with stem cells involves an infusion of the patient’s blood with blood from their umbilical cord. His parents banked the South African child’s cord blood at birth.

Dr Yvonne Holt, the Medical Director of Netcells – the company that stored the South African boy’s stem cells – explains that stem cells are the building blocks of life because of their ability to change into specialised cells. “Umbilical cord blood is rich in haematopoietic stem cells that become the red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and other immune cells that make up our blood,” she says. “Various international trials have found that stem cells can regenerate or facilitate the repair of cells damaged by disease, genetics or injury.”

Duke University’s research into stem cell treatment, also known as regenerative medicine, is led by internationally renowned stem cell pioneer, Dr Joanne Kurtzberg. The team has completed two clinical trials in which  children with cerebral palsy or acquired brain injuries were treated with a single cord blood infusion.

One of the trial’s success stories was two-year-old Chloe Levine, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy that affected the entire right side of her body. Before her treatment Chloe’s parents were told she might need up to 18 years of traditional treatment, with no assurance of what her future might hold.